There are times when a band’s own distinctiveness can become a millstone around their neck – when the unique path that they forged can, as the years progress, begin to resemble something of a creative straitjacket compelling them to continue to mine a sound that they perfected long ago and now seem somehow trapped in.
As much as it pains me to type it, I am starting to get that feeling with Blind Guardian. Allow me to quantify.
In the mid-90s, flying in the face of all metal fashions of the time, Blind Guardian managed to create a run of three albums that single-handedly redefined what ‘power’ metal was capable of achieving. Taking the thrash/speed metal Helloween-influenced exuberance of their first couple of records (1988’s ‘Battalions of Fear’ and 1990’s ‘Follow the Blind’), the German four-piece tempered their more frenetic approach with a deft touch of progressiveness, symphony and considered compositional complexity.
The results were extraordinary. ‘Somewhere Far Beyond’ (1993), ‘Imaginations from the Other Side’ (1995) and ‘Nightfall in Middle-Earth’ (1998) redefined what it was possible for a still relatively-embryonic form of music to achieve. Blending huge riffs, galloping speed, massive choruses and an unprecedented level of compositional detail, all three are rightly regarded as classics. Not only this, they firmly cemented Blind Guardian’s unique sound – progressive structures, thrashy drumming, Andre Olbrich’s distinctive lead guitar lines and Hansi Kursch’s unmistakeable (and unforgettable) vocals.
And this is what saddens me slightly. Since that creative high watermark, with subsequent releases, the band have been content to simply refine their approach, chuck in more layered symphonics and slicken up the production. They haven’t released any bad albums at all – indeed, far from it, their catalogue is remarkably consistent – but there has been a nagging sensation of laurel-resting, of contentment of having reached a certain point and being content to continue to mine a well-established sound.
So, to ‘Beyond the Red Mirror’. It’s been five years since ‘At the Edge of Time’, a focussed, harder offering many (me included) felt was their strongest offering since ‘Nightfall’. It seemed to indicate the band were turning back to re-emphasising some of the more ‘metal’ elements of their sound – after all, the most intoxicating aspect of ‘classic’ Blind Guardian was the marriage of deft symphonics and surprisingly intense metal – and it was certainly hoped by this scribe the next release would see a further redressing of the balance.
The opening few minutes of ‘The Ninth Wave’ puts paid to such notions. Simmering choirs weave an ominous, bombastic tapestry, promising something truly epic – however, never ones to play it too predictable, the song proper ushers in with some electronic percussion, staccato riffing and a rather sparse vocal from Hansi. It’s an unusual start and the track never really seems to find its path – there’s plenty of orchestration and the chorus is uplifting enough with those traditional layers of harmonising backing vocals providing the expected levels of soar but somehow, it feels a little disjointed.
Next up is single ‘Twilight of the Gods’ and we’re in slightly more familiar territory here – the chorus is infectious, the riffing a touch more straightforward, the energy more palpable. Still though, there’s something a touch flat about the sound here – when so much instrumentation and so many vocals are being piled into the mix, Charlie Bauerfind’s engineering/mastering can sometimes be found wanting. This was a particular problem on 2002’s ‘A Night at the Opera’ and it unfortunately rears its head here – the vast layers of choirs and orchestrations ends up flattening the sound a bit, squashing the dynamics and robbing the ‘air’ from proceedings. Fred Ehmke’s drums in particular are made to suffer, relegated to the background somewhat and robbed of many of their important transients. The poor chap may as well be using a cheap old electronic kit at points and it’s a shame as he’s a great player.
But that’s a relatively minor point. As always with Blind Guardian, it’s the songs that count and whilst they’ve taken a step further down the proggy, orchestrated path here, they certainly haven’t forgotten how to pen a killer hook. ‘Prophecies’ is a proper mini-epic and one of the strongest here, all lurching riffs and strident vocals. The multi-part chorus is Blind Guardian at their escalating best. This is followed however by possibly the most ambitious song on the record – ‘At the Edge of Time’, where the guitars take something of a backseat to a full-blown classically-structured journey. The orchestration is lush, the crescendos huge, the quality and scale of the writing so far above their contemporaries. It offers a glimpse of perhaps where the band could head – if they truly want to over-emphasise their classical direction over their metal roots then ‘At the Edge of Time’ perhaps represents the future.
The rest of the album presents what can only be described as ‘solid Blind Guardian’ which is not to damn with faint praise. There are some cracking moments – the chorus of ‘The Holy Grail’ is a dead ringer for Somewhere Far Beyond’s title track, a real pulse-racing speed-metal classic that shows they can summon the thrashier outfit of yore when they so choose. ‘The Throne’ is another self-contained epic, again laced with a great balance of bombast and scything guitar work.
There’s so much going on in these songs, it can be hard to keep track. Blind Guardian have clearly chosen to push themselves as hard as possible to cram as much detail as they can into these tracks and this can reap dividends. Sometimes though, a song can veer frustratingly – ‘Sacred Mind’ for example starts quietly, reflectively and is incredibly effective, yet two minutes in we suddenly take a lurching veer into jagged speed metal. The change is jarring, awkward and derails the vibe they had so carefully constructed.
I feel like a real nitpicker here – ‘Beyond the Red Mirror’ is a huge, impressive album that literally bristles with hooks and stand-out moments that flatten those of their peers – but there is still a nagging frustration that the band are still seeking to truly move their sound forward, to match the defining standards that they themselves set in the mid Nineties. As I said at the start of this review, to scale real heights whilst defining your own sound is a remarkable achievement but it can make a rod for your own back. Blind Guardian may still be somewhat tethered to their own rod still – but on the evidence of ‘Beyond the Red Mirror’, the bonds are perhaps starting to loosen.
(8/10 Frank Allain)